Comfort Food, Loneliness, and “How are you doing?”
Aside from all of the sugar and caffeine, I have been enjoying healthier options. I use that term lightly, however. I don’t understand how the porteños stay so slim, eating the way they do. They do red meat very well, and they eat a lot of it! Another popular meal is a milanesa, a thin sheet of beef or chicken, breaded and fried. Often with a side of french fries. Other staples are pizza, pasta, and empanadas. Lots of carbs.
It is all delicious, but after awhile, I am starting to crave variety. They seem to know what foods they like, and they stick to them. I find myself missing vegetables, couscous, falafel, certain dishes I would cook for myself in the United States.
Out of all the delicious, albeit repetitive, meals and foods I have tried so far, the best has been not the bife de lomo and bottle of Malbec I shared with other students from the program in a fancy restaurant, but a half eaten piece of cheese and onion filled bread that a stranger offered me in la UBA.
Normally I never share food with strangers. Often not even with friends. But I was tired, lost, and hungry. The Argentines do not eat dinner until very late at night, and that has been hard for me to adjust to. I am always hungry earlier, but with late classes, I don’t get home for dinner until close to midnight.
So when this guy saw me trying to find my way around, told me he was looking for the same class, and offered to walk with me, and then offered me his food on top of that kindness, I couldn’t turn it down. You know how things just taste better when you’re really hungry? I just about inhaled that hunk of bread filled with slimy slices of onion and I don’t even know what else. Many times, studying abroad, I eat things without fully knowing what they are. I’m proud of how adventurous I’ve become. I used to be a bit of a picky eater, but now I just try everything. For one thing, I might not know how to translate the Spanish description of whatever I’ve ordered. And for another, when you’re hungry and you just want food, asking for details or ingredients in a foreign language stops being a priority.
Sharing food and drinks is also important socially, I feel, especially in la UBA. The students are constantly passing around cigarettes and sipping mate. If you buy a pack of gum or candy and start eating it, it is expected that you offer it to everyone around you.
I love that sense of camaraderie, the spirit of sharing, one for all and all for one. And yet, with the language barrier, I sometimes feel alienated from the community. I don’t have any porteno friends yet. The director of the study abroad program, during orientation, told us it would be difficult to make friends, and now I understand what he meant. It’s not that they aren’t friendly. On the contrary, they ask me so many questions and are eager to find out where I’m from, why I chose to study here, what my life is like in the United States, what I think of Buenos Aires, and so on. But as soon as the inundation of curiosity stops, that’s it. They have their own lives, their own friends, and I am just temporary, an exchange student.
It is one thing to feel lonely when you are by yourself. It is quite another type of loneliness to be surrounded by hundreds of moving, talking, coffee-drinking, snack-sharing bodies, and yet feel utterly alone.
I was at this point when I decided to ask a professor to clarify the syllabus. He asked me a lot of questions, like: “Ah, de donde sos? ¿Tenes otras preguntas? ¿Cómo estás? ¿Cómo va, todo bien?”
The “are you doing okay?” part got to me. Because he meant it. So many people, in the United States, at least, when they ask you “How are you?”, I feel like they don’t actually mean it. It’s just a phrase to say, like a tic, or an engrained obligation. The trained response is an equally quick “Good,” or “Fine,” even when you’re not good or fine. Here, it seems different – I feel as though people take the time to wait for an answer. So when el professor asked me and stood there with a worried look on his face, waiting for me to tell him, honestly, if I was okay, I almost started to cry. Everything that had been building up for the past week – not understanding anyone when they spoke to me, feeling waaay in over my head in terms of the level and volume of readings, not having friends – it all flooded to the surface. Am I doing okay? I have been telling myself I am, but I realized I’m not so sure. Sometimes you don’t know how badly you need to be asked if you’re okay until somebody asks you.